Friday, June 15, 2007

Torah True Jews

My good friend Rabbi Shael Siegel has written an excellent essay on the subject of Torah True Judaism. While I do not agree with it in its entirety, I do agree that the term Torah True Judaism is elitistist and exclusionary.

I’ve always had a problem with that term. This term is the one often used by ultra-Orthodox Jews in describing themselves. And its frame of reference is almost always used in a Mussar context. It is a Hashkafic statement. They use it to communicate something special about themselves, that makes them separate and apart form the rest of Orthodox Jewry. Separatism requires a uniformity of difference so as to be able to distinguish themselves both visually and behaviorally from the rest of Klal Yisroel.

Being a Torah Jew just doesn’t seem to be enough, I guess. One has to have that extra word ‘true’ attached to it. It is as if to say the only Torah way is our Torah way. Only that is Torah true. But that is very strange indeed for a movement that claims it is pure Torah… and objects to all the “ands” in other Hashkafos: Torah and Mada, Torah and Derech Eretz, Torah and Chasidus. The fact is they now have a type of “and” too. One must now add the word true in order to be identified as a legitimate adherent of the Torah. But is the Torah any truer by adding that word? Is being a Torah Jew less Jewish than a Torah ‘true’ Jew?

The fact is that the term “Torah true” has no has any internal meaning. Saying Torah true adds nothing to Torah. Torah is by definition truth itself. So what is the point? Why identify by that term? What does it really mean?

I think the answer is clear. Its meaning is nothing more than a code word for a specific Hashkafa, one that makes the adherents of their very specific Hashkafa distinct from other Torah Jews. By calling oneself Torah true, one immediately identifies themselves as a member of their elite group… which is to them truer to Torah than anyone or anything else.

And with insularity as one of its primary features, it extricates them from the rest of the Torah world. It is as if they are telling us: Only our ways are the true Torah ways and every other observant Hashkafa is not quite as true as ours. Other Orthodox Hashkafos are “Krum” …not straight… but follow a somewhat deviant path to one degree or another. As Shael puts it: there is no Elu VElu… No Shivim Panim.

Being Torah true has an attitude that goes along with it. It is “The my way or the highway” attitude: “If you are not a member of our group… you may be a fine Jew… but you are not Torah true, and ‘Nisht Fun Unzera’ …not one of us! And we therefore separate ourselves from you so as to keep our ways pristine and pure. You… the rest of observant Jewry… mix your Judaism with ideas foreign to Torah.”

It galls me when I think about it. By this definition, I, who am observant of the Mitzvos of the Torah… am not a Torah true Jew. Nor is anyone on the RCA or in Yeshiva University. Or anyone who does not completely tow the ultra-Orthodox party line.

That’s too bad, really. Because cutting oneself off so completely from the rest of the Orthodox Jewry, let alone non-Orthodox Jewry is anathematic to Torah itself. By Torah mandate every Jew is responsible for the spiritual welfare of every other. And the insularity that is a virtual trademark of ultra-Orthodoxy makes this almost impossible to accomplish to any segment of Jewry other than their own.

Another important mandate of Torah Judaism they miss out on is that of being a light unto the nations. If they are so insulated from the rest of the world, how much of a light can they be? Shielding themselves from the outside world also shields their light from shining out. They will of course deny that. They will say that their pure and pristine ways will be noted somehow by the world at large and that will enlighten the world. But they are mistaken. Insularity is a two way street. By insulating themselves from the rest of the world they their light has a hard time shining through.

But that said I would not go so far as my friend Shael does. He wants to define Torah Judaism as an attitude. But that is an inaccurate definition of Torah Judaism in my view. Living according to some of the ideals in the Torah does not make a non-observant Jew a Torah Jew any more than it does when a Christian lives by those ideals. The Torah is not only about the ethical values of the Torah. To call oneself a Torah Jew one must do more than adhere to some of the values espoused by the Torah. One must not only pay attention to the Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chavero... man and his fellow man. One must pay just as much attention to the Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom, those ritual laws designed specifically to serve God.

Reform Jews focus is on the ethics of Judaism, that is, those laws pertaining to ethical human interaction. But they leave as optional those laws pertaining to direct service to God. They therefore are not committed to observing all the Mitzvos of the Torah. Halacha, which is the expression of Torah observance… the ‘how to’ …is not binding according to the tenets of Reform Judaism.

And even though Conservative Jews have always claimed to follow Halacha, that… is no longer so clear. There are theologians amongst them who now dispute that. And certainly Reconstructionists whose views about God are heretical cannot be considered Torah Jews. It is not as my friend Shael says, about how serious one is about Torah. One must also be serious about following all of its commandments.

Just to be clear, I do not God forbid write any Jews out of Judaism. Every Jewish soul is just as authentic as mine or even as the biggest Gadol. No matter how much or how little of the Torah he or she observes. But to call them Torah Jews would not be a correct description of their status. In my view, for that, one has to be committed to full observance.